Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and more: Exhibit brings the West into focus, one portrait at a time

Facing West exhibit from the front door
Facing West: Camera Portraits from the Bancroft Collection includes about 150 photographic portraits, grouped into 10 themes. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

Yes, there are the famous faces: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Mark Twain, Muhammad Ali.

But there are plenty of others, too — people whose stories are interwoven into the fabric of the West, even if their faces and names might elude most observers, from inmates to steelworkers to civil rights activists.

Together, these faces will fill the gallery at The Bancroft Library for nearly an entire year for a stunning new two-part exhibition made up entirely of portraits. Opening Friday, Facing West: Camera Portraits from the Bancroft Collection includes about 150 photographs, which span from around 1850 — the early days of photography in the West — to the present day, highlighting some of the most compelling portraits in Bancroft’s pictorial collection.

“(The West) is such a vibrant, rebellious, and fascinating place,” said Jack von Euw, pictorial curator at Bancroft, who, along with curatorial assistant Christine Hult-Lewis, put together the upcoming exhibit. “We wanted to include portraits that capture the spirit of the West … and the many communities that make the West what it is.”

Divided into 10 themes (among them “Those who inspire and lead us,” “High society,” and “Where we live”), the final selection of portraits run the gamut, focusing heavily on Bancroft’s Western Americana and Latin Americana collections.

 

Facing West: Camera Portraits from the Bancroft Collection

Where: The Bancroft Gallery, in Doe Annex

When: Facing West 1 runs Nov. 9 through March 15, 2019; Facing West 2 runs April 1 through July 15; the gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday

Cost: Free

 

A photograph by David Johnson shows a stoic-faced woman at a demonstration during the height of the civil rights movement, the reflection of an American flag in her browline glasses. A 1973 portrait by Michelle Vignes captures Russell Means, among the most prominent forces in the American Indian Movement, in what appears to be a quiet moment of reflection. A piece by Clifford Baker captures a participant in the San Francisco AIDS March — donning lace, strands of pearls, and a somber expression — reflecting the fragile joy of the LGBTQ community at a time when it was fighting not only for rights, but for survival.

Photographers represented in the exhibit range from well-known luminaries such as Dorothea Lange to lesser-known but important figures such as Chauncey Hare and pre-eminent World War II photojournalist Thérèse Bonney, a Berkeley alum. (Bonney’s photographs of European refugees during World War II are part of her impressive archive, held by Bancroft.)

But which photos are the curators’ favorites?

“That’s like choosing what child is your favorite,” von Euw said.

While he couldn’t pick just one, among them is a stunning portrait of Muhammad Ali by Howard Bingham, the son of a Pullman porter and a lifelong personal friend of Ali. Hult-Lewis points to Berkeley-based photographer Judy Dater’s black-and-white photo of celebrated author Maxine Hong Kingston as one of her favorites. From 2015, it is the most recent photograph in the exhibit, depicting Kingston wielding a sword — a nod to the author’s most famous book, The Woman Warrior.

Reflection in glass
A visitor is reflected in a portrait in the gallery.

“It’s a really striking portrait,” Hult-Lewis said.

Along with the subjects, the sizes of the portraits vary, ranging from just a few inches to several feet across. A particularly large piece, for example — a 1924 panorama of photographer Taizo Kato’s funeral — measures more than 4 ½ feet wide. As for the oldest item? That would be a daguerreotype of Don José Estudillo, an early Californio, dating back to 1851.

For Hult-Lewis and von Euw, work on the exhibit began about a year and a half ago. After making an initial selection of upward of 300 photographs, they eventually winnowed the selection down to about 150 photographs total, a daunting task. (“That’s where it got really difficult,” Hult-Lewis noted.)

In March, Bancroft will swap out about 30 percent of the photos in the exhibit (each part of the exhibit will feature more than 100 portraits), which will not only give visitors a more dynamic and varied experience, but also allow the library to preserve the physical integrity of some of the more sensitive photographs by providing them a respite from the gallery lights.

“It is vitally important to preserve these photographs for years and years into the future — for the coming generations to benefit from them as we have,” von Euw said.

The curators hope the photos will inspire visitors to look further into Bancroft’s collections and discover the gems that lie within. The exhibit represents just the tip of the iceberg — or, perhaps, a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg — of Bancroft’s pictorial collection, which numbers about 9 million items, including photo negatives.

“We think it’s the second biggest (pictorial collection in the country),” behind the Library of Congress’ collection, von Euw said.

David JohnsonJudy Deter and Maxine Hong Kingston
Top to bottom: Left to right: Photographer David Johnson tells visitors about one of his portraits in the Facing West exhibit; author Maxine Hong Kingston, left, speaks with photographer Judy Dater in front Dater’s portrait of her.

The show is a nod to the 10th anniversary of Bancroft’s renovation — the library reopened to the public at the beginning of 2009 after a major restoration — and ties into the Library’s Bancroft & the West initiative, which aims to connect Bancroft’s world-class materials with the diverse communities they represent. The exhibit also honors the legacy of Hubert Howe Bancroft, the library’s namesake, whose personal library formed the basis of the collection at Bancroft in 1905 — and who embodied the mission of collecting and sharing the history and magnificence of the West

“(The portraits in the exhibit) show us the faces of leaders and followers, performers and audiences, people working hard, having fun, spending family time, getting married, and mourning their dead,” said Elaine Tennant, director of Bancroft. “In them we read the history of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s collecting region — from the Rockies to the Pacific Islands, from Alaska to Panama — and of our ourselves looking forward.”

Although the exhibit touches on a range of events and historical periods — the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and many more — the goal is not to encapsulate any one moment in time.

“It’s about the people,” von Euw said. “Who belongs, who we revere, and who deserves to be portrayed.”

Wall of portraits
Around 90 photographers are represented in the exhibit, from well-known figures such as Dorothea Lange and Judy Dater to those who are lesser-known but whose work is vitally important.